When Species first hit theatres, I was nine. Not quite on the level of puberty, but aware enough of my own sexuality. To say I had a crush on Natasha Henstridge’s Sil, the lone species whose hunger for an offspring could not be contained, is putting it mildly. This was before Barb Wire, Fair Game and the co-ed shower scene of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers – all films that filled my pre-pubescent mind when I probably should have been off catching more appropriate fare such as The Big Green and Balto (don’t worry, I caught those too). And like real life crushes, you never quite forget your very first on-screen infatuation.
That’s why when I was assigned the task of giving its 1998 sequel a proper adult introduction, I jumped at the chance. Now was my time to put a first crush behind me and enjoy a sequel to a film that probably meant more to me than it really should have. And out of all the sci-fi scare-fests that came out of the 1990’s, Species II definitely ranks right up there with the dumbest.
But that’s part of its charm, its allure beneath the pseudo-tentacle erotica that frequently flashes across the screen. This is as much a sci-fi Skinemax flick as it is an inter-galactic creature feature, one that dabbles in erotic action which for the most part, deserves its own genre. It invites audiences to come for the H.R. Giger designed aliens with tentacles dancing like gut churning sugar plums, and stay for the extreme levels of body horror. After all, it is still a sequel, one that goes for broke in an attempt to prove that it is far from the inferior species.
What starts off as an epoch-making land on the red planet – a monumental achievement despite the budget allowing for only one celebratory scene in a packed bar – soon becomes a code red for all the women of Earth. Contained in the soil samplings taken from Mars is an extraterrestrial life-form that thaws and infects its three astronauts, who return home to a planet that seems to treat its explorers like the volleyball scene in Top Gun. This is a very horny film, where women – in some retro-nod to the space days – just can’t get enough of star astronaut Patrick Ross (played by Justin Lazard), whose face lines cereal boxes such as Space Flakes.
When the military catches wind of the potential world wide threat, an outbreak that would see the female population inevitably reproduce uterus bursting baby boys, they enlist the help of Dr. Baker (returning survivor Marg Helgenberger), a research scientist who has been conducting experiments on a clone named Eve (Natasha Henstridge). Using her alien DNA to get into the mind of the infected and insatiable host, Dr. Baker and Species’ previous gun-for-hire Press Lenox (Michael Madsen) – along with immune astronaut Dennis Gamble (Mykelti Williams) – set out to exterminate the threat before it’s too late.
Much of Species prestige seems to have vanished in the sequel, with the absence of stars such as Ben Kingsley, Forest Whitaker, and Alfred Molina, who gave the first film the illusion that this is much more than just mid-90’s schlock. It told audiences that genre didn’t die three years ago with Alien 3, and that sci-fi has the potential to expand well past late night television with shows like Farscape and Babylon 5. And to an extent that’s true, aided partly in the fact that Swiss fetishist painter H.R. Giger made the creature designs pop.
Tentacles amass around green breasted bodies adorned with ribbed nipples that border on industrial, embellishing the film in a sexual grotesquerie that subverts much of the phallic imagery present in Alien, which sees its crew hunted by their nightmares; a surreal and cold creature that stands erect using its protruding mouth to penetrate bodies. Here, that very nightmare is concealed, hidden beneath flesh that preys on sexual cravings. Where the first film focuses on how skewered and hunted women are for having such appetites, Species II dabbles in both, allowing its cloned femme-fatale to regain her own agency while still having a little bit of fun.
And make no mistake about it, Species II is very far from the blockbuster status of the Alien sequel, yet it proves it doesn’t need James Cameron or a star studded cast to have a good time!
Peter Madek, who confirmed his status in the horror genre with 1980’s seminal haunted house film The Changeling, takes every bit of leeway in creating a sequel that’s far less concerned with making an impression as it is chewing up the genre and spitting it out. This is video store camp of the highest order, spliced together from the likes of Roger Corman, David Cronenberg and John Carpenter that knows its place in the galaxy, let alone Hollywood.
Gone are the faces that have since made households name for themselves, which Species contributed to, reigniting Molina’s career and further cementing Whitaker as a ubiquitous supporting character. Yet the ultimate draw for a mostly male audience was Natasha Henstringe, whose breakout role guaranteed unbridled steaminess from the trailers alone. Species unabashedly knew its place within the sexually profitable world of the Sharon Stone era, and it cashed in on it.
Which is why it’s sequel was able to ride on the tentacles of the firsts massive success, opening in over 2,000 theatres and earning over three times its 35 million dollar budget. As long as it had its seductive centre, it had just what it needed, despite not really finding much to do with her.
She remains locked in a glass cell – obviously not the most impenetrable means, yet it offers the best view. From just about every angle, as we observe her watch baseball, The Dukes of Hazard (where she learns how to drive, of course), workout and paint her nails. For us, she’s a reality television star, which has its aesthetic merits, but it squanders any potential for an actress who, for the most part, can act. Which makes her literal inability to break out, the films second biggest misfire next to its one-dimensional posturing of its only actor of colour.
Screenwriter Chris Brancato (Hoodlum), aware that Forest Whitaker would be unable to return as Dan Smithson – Species telepathic gateway into the aliens mind – creates a similarly “cultured” character in Mykelti Williamson, who hams it up with some truly problematic lines in a preposterous attempt at 48 Hours level humour. From going “back to Africa” on some baddies to getting “Kunta Kinte” on a barn full of cocooned alien lifeforms, Williamson just about nails what it means to be a black man in a predominantly white film.
Then there’s Michael Madsen who, despite his vocal opinions about the film, chews through scenes like a sedated reservoir dog, establishing that dreary eyed act so many now attribute with Bruce Willis. Madsen ultimately works within the levels of camp present, dropping one liners (“Welcome to the maternity ward, from hell!”) while looking as gone as our fugitive astronaut, who somehow brings a level of craftsmanship to dreary.
Ads for Miler Lite, Reebok and the like plaster the space station to Mars that shows the films very blatant attempt to acquire some semblance of budget through its product placement. Which works, as Species II defines itself on a few of these budget heavy set pieces.
Two of these include moments of gut bursting wizardry that feature infected women – one the lone female astronaut from the mission – induce labor within minutes of pregnancy. It’s a spectacle that equally disturbs and dazzles, as stomachs burst open to show a protruding child and a writhing tentacle that kills on site. It’s far from groundbreaking, and it owes everything to Alien, The Thing and Videodrome, yet for a sequel that ultimately promises nothing, it’s a pleasant shock. Even when alien children are being ushered into a barn wearing homemade muscle tees, it’s difficult to say no to such unabashed levels of cinematic pleasure.